I was walking in the woods this morning, on the hunt for what a friend had excitedly called a “bloom of lily-like plants with spotted leaves and yellow flowers.” I went with the intention of recording an image, but I got a lot more out of the experience than just a photograph.
My mistake was not going the very day that my friend had called. Temperatures had been in the mid-80s during the interval, so I should have thought about what that would do to ephemeral wild flowers.
When I finally went today, temperatures were about 25 degrees cooler and the sky hung low and gray. I had to walk back and forth several times along the path, scanning the early spring foliage for signs of yellow before I saw them. They were tiny, maybe three inches high on a delicate sliver of a stem. Nearly impossible to see because the record heat had caused the poor things to fry, and their wilted petals blended into the fallen leaves from autumn, scattered everywhere.
I fished out my macro-lens and was down on the ground amidst the poison and English ivy, trying to photograph the most fresh-looking flower when a lady with a dog called out, “There certainly is a lot of visual interest here, isn’t there? What are you photographing?”
“I’ve come for a yellow lily-like flower that was blooming two days ago. I think I see the remains of some of them here,” I said. From where I crouched amongst the leaves, the dog looked huge, dwarfing the shriveled flower.
“I think I saw some of them yesterday–but I don’t really see things when I’m walking–I keep my eyes on my dog.
Are you a photographer by vocation–or avocation?” she asked, steam rising as the dog peed on May Apples next to the path.
“Oh, I just take pictures so that I can see better,” I answered, realizing as the words came out that that *is* why I take so many pictures: to see better. To be alive through the lens, focused intently on what I am seeing in the viewfinder or on the display. To THINK of nothing, to just BE in the camera, whatever is around me. To be exquisitely aware, mindful of the light, the shifting, moving, dancing light on a leaf, a face, a mountain…
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” — Dorothea Lange
When I take photos, I am the most present, most peaceful version of myself. I’m not thinking of what I need to do that day, not feeling stressed out about what is going on in Washington, DC. All I am is feeling, not thought. In fact, I doubt there are even words in my head while I’m seeing. I think that, in a way, I lose a sense of being a “self,” separate from the world.
John Suler writes in Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, about this experience: “… many of the great masters talk about photography as awareness of the present moment in which we forget ourselves. We let go of the goals, desires, expectations, techniques, and anxieties that make up who we in order to more fully immerse ourselves into the experience of seeing. We open up our receptive awareness to what the world offers us. Rather than being some objective observer trying to capture something, we become the being that is in communion with the environment, that is IN the world.
We’re not looking for anything in particular. We’re not going anywhere in particular. We’re not expecting or trying to control anything in particular. Instead, we’re wandering, perhaps rather aimlessly, without a goal or purpose. We’re fully and naively open to the possibility of the unexpected, the unique, the moment when things come together… to the flow of life. Under these conditions, when we let go of the self, “it” appears to us. We don’t find and take the picture. The photograph finds us. It takes itself. We unite with the scene not so we can see a shot we want, but rather what the scene offers. The experience comes to us and the photograph is simply the icing on the cake.”
I know it’s necessary for the enrichment of my life, and the replenishment of my soul to take photos so that I consciously look at, observe mindfully, and SEE what is around me. Somehow the experience, the communion with whatever is in my photos makes me very happy. Maybe it makes me grateful, too. Grateful for the beauty, the color, the shape, the light. For the moment as it was, and how it stays in my memory.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” –Henry David Thoreau
“Photography has been my way of bearing witness to the joy I find in seeing the extraordinary in ordinary life. You don’t look for pictures. Your pictures are looking for you.”—Harold Feinstein